Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda pleaded not guilty yesterday to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, in proceedings that legal experts expect to be lengthy and have a slim chance of the Rwandan born general being found guilty.
The hearing took place at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Ntaganda is accused of conspiring to give the Hema ethnic group control over Congo’s northeast Ituri province in the early 2000’s and thereby seizing the province’s vast diamond, gold and oil reserves.
The charges include rape, murder, pillage and ethnic persecution. Under international law he can be personally charged with crimes carried out by forces he was commanding.
Ntaganda, known as “The Terminator,” led the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) and an associated guerrilla army known as the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC).
The court was told 5,000 civilians were killed during the 2002-03 ethnic war.
Although there has been a precedent set for Ntaganda case, as co-conspirator Thomas Lubanga was found guilty of similar charges in 2012 and is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence, experts say this holds little weight.
They cite the ICC’s record since its formation in 2002 of only convicting little-known warlords. They say most of the court’s high profile indictees remain at large or are still in power. The court’s recent case against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta fizzled after many witnesses refused to testify.
Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told the court of one incident where forces from Ntaganda’s UPC had tricked opposing ethnic Lendus, who were controlling the land they wanted, to attend bogus peace talks in order to kill them.
“Bosco Ntaganda was the UPC’s highest commander, in charge of operations and organization,” Bensouda told the court. She said Ntaganda allowed the killings to go unpunished and had praised the field commander responsible, calling him “a real man.”
The court heard about one witness who had found the bodies of his children and wife among slaughtered victims in a banana field.
Ms Bensouda also told of how female child soldiers had been used as sex slaves by soldiers under Ntaganda’s command.
Ntaganda was indicted in 2006 but remained on the run till 2013 when, fearing for his life, he handed himself in at the US embassy in Rwanda
He is reported to have said that handing himself in to face charges was “already a step towards relief and some rehabilitation.”